Ramsey Lewis’s main musical personality is as an interpreter. Of both classic and modern standards. He wasn’t generally a Quincy Jones style arranger and producer, who had grand ideas for long form musical concepts. Lewis’s 1978 album Legacy changed that dynamic for the soul jazz pianist. Anyone who is going into this album fresh without any familiarity with it’s contents should be made aware of some important facts. For starters, this is not your average Ramsey Lewis album. The pianist had divided the majority of the 70’s up until this point recording in two distinct kinds of fusion styles.
One of these styles was a very poppy R&B-inflected style that owed at least as much to orchestration as to melody (example: Tequila Mockingbird and the other a very dynamic funk-jazz sound strongly influenced by Earth Wind & Fire and the Ohio Players (example: Don’t It Feel Good). On Legacy, those distinctions begin the blur. And a lot of it was very much intentional. The title track,a long 22 + minute track here (and sidelong suite on the original vinyl LP) is more or less a concerto featuring three distinct sections,listed on the album featuring Lewis’s piano playing in those unique settings.
It’s not a classical piece though. The piano solo’s are based more in different jazz and gospel mixtures than anything in the European classic tradition. In between they are bound together with these interludes that are basically very cinematic theatrical scores. The whole thing comes off as a mixture of that all encompassing musical suite Quincy Jones tinkered with around this same time and a 70’s style movie soundtrack. The second part of the album though is where those “blurring lines” surrounding Ramsey’s separate musical sides of the decade are most apparent.
He was born under the Gemini star after all so it’s not surprising that compositions such as “All The Way Live”,”Don’t Look Back” and “Well,Well,Well” blend both flowery orchestral rhetoric with a very direct polyrhythmic, staccato funk. Strangely enough because you have the two musical dynamics occurring at the same time,there appears to be too much instrumentation on some of the songs. Interestingly enough at times a couple of them sometimes break off into a disco beat. It’s not that they are particularly overproduced but there’s often a huge amount of musical content.
Out of all the tunes, “Moogin On” is the most impressive as it focuses squarely into an impressive, upbeat Latin-funk piece that’s incredibly catchy and a wonderful standout song for this album. The more gentle “I Love To Please You” is the single thoroughly mellow tune here,if on that hand your into that kind of thing. Some people just aren’t. This is an album that’s very commendable for the typically masterful musicianship from Ramsey and his band,as well as their collective intent on stringing together over a century of musical development into a contemporary context.
It’s not something even easy to conceptualize. The fact that Ramsey was able to pull this off so well here says a lot. Legacy is also vital in terms of its visual packaging. The front cover depicts “clones” of Ramsey Lewis in different outfits. On the back is a checklist illustrating which end of music each outfit was associated with-from rock, Latin to New Orleans. This gives an image for Ramsey’s hope of showcasing the scope of jazz from its origins up to the funk/disco era that Legacy was recorded in. And what makes the album an important and unsung diamond in Ramsey’s vast recorded catalog.
Reggie Lucas is one of those names who appears on the credits of many albums. In all my years of crate digging, I’d grab just about any album which credited him. Didn’t matter if it was on guitar, as a producer or not. Lucas’s lineage was strong as iron. Born in Queens, the man got his start playing within the Philly soul community as a session musician with MFSB and as a live musician with Billy Paul. In 1972, he began his professional association with Miles Davis, where he met percussionist James Mtume. Together they put together a new band named after James’ taken surname.
Mtume started out as an avant garde jazz outfit with electric elements, very much inspired by Miles’ loose grooves of his mid 70’s period. The band added singer Tawatha Agee in 1978 and released Kiss The World Goodbye. This version of Mtume was a full funk/soul elements. Lucas also began production work during the late 70’s. He began and association with both Phyllis Hyman and Stephanie Mills that would last several years and albums. He also produced jazz sax player Gary Bartz during his own transition to a funkier sound.
Lucas’s biggest success as a member of Mtume was with their 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit”, a sexually spicy electro funk jam that inspired an equally famous hip-hop reboot called “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G, who also sampled the original hit in his song. During that same year, Lucas provided production on the then little known singer/dancer Madonna Ciccone on her debut album. His LINN drum and guitar work, including Lucas’s own composition “Borderline”, would find him part of the musical team that launched one of the 20th centuries major dance music superstars.
Looking back on his accomplishments today? Reggie Lucas served a similar function on guitar as Marcus Miller did as a bassist. He came to fame as a musician working with Miles Davis. And went onto become a session player for a number of soul and pop artists-many of whom themselves became iconic. Lucas may have passed away on my 38th birthday. But in the end, Lucas was another major seed that Miles planted into the tapestry of black American music during the electric jazz and funk/soul/disco era’s. To me, this will be what I’ll always think about when contemplating Lucas’s creative arc.
Showdown was recorded in 1978 as the follow up to the Isley’s Go for Your Guns, which followed through with the fast paced funk style of the three previous 3+3 era Isley Brothers’ releases. On the Showdown album, everything had begun to change for this family band . In focusing more on slowing the funk down to this smoldering hot crawl of a groove,even the uptempo stuff has a sleeker (and less brittle) approach in their instrumentation. This resulted in a certain lushness that mildly hinted at the disco/dance sound in some of its rhythmic pattern.
The title track is about as great an example of this sound as one could ask. And the Isley’s of course work the groove straight into the subconscious, whilst talking full advantage of the slower tempo. In the end, that makes the bass/guitar interaction all the funkier. “Groove With You” is another case where the Isley’s do their best type of bedroom groove,setting up the most romantic imagery and of course the music just melts like caramel. “Ain’t Givin’ Up No Love” is type of funk jam that’s like a fist slamming down slow and hard onto a table and leaving an enormous crack.
The simple fact that Chris Jasper seriously throws down with his bass synth on this one right along with Marvin’s bass guitar just throws out all kinds of extra punches. “Rockin’ With Fire” and “Love Fever” are all two part Ernie Isley funk/rockers that all showcase his guitar work and the power of this rhythm section. All are taken at the faster pace of this album. “Take Me To The Next Phase” is just about the most glorious funk jam the Isley’s ever did. In the funk tradition of James Brown, “Next Phase” is a studio recording overdubbed with applause and band banter to sound like a live stadium performance.
“Take Me To The Next Phase” ends up capturing the flavor of both their own sound along with a bit of Stevie Wonder style funk chords (not surprising since they both utilized the electronic sounds of TONTO at the time) and despite it’s lengths leaves you hoping for more. ‘Coolin’ Me Out” is a more pop crafted variation of the same sound and still turns out to be an incredible jam-probably one of the most unsung on this album. “Fun And Games” harnesses a bit of a West Coast jazz-pop influence in the melody along with the peppy groove.
Showdown is an album that I felt for years was a bit of a letdown compared to its predecessors. In terms of funk, what has been revealed over many listening’s is that its actually an album with one great, iconic song (“Take Me To The Next Phase”) and seven other good to very good songs with…good to very good grooves. That is somewhat what happened upon listening to Funkadelic’s final two 70’s releases with me as well. At four decades old now, this album remains as another potent reminder of how unique the 3+3 era Isley Brother’s were with their take on the funk/rock hybrid.
Spectrum was an album that I had to grow into. And that growth occurred through a specific kind of context as well. Knowing full well that the album was Billy Cobham’s debut as a leader following his departure from the Mahavishnu Orchestra? I was very psyched up to hear this album upon first learning about it a decade or so ago. At the time? My views on progressive instrumentation was caught between the influence of my own likes and the happiness of others. The precision style of what I call “speed fusion” put me off to some degree at the time because of that ambiguity.
It was growth from both within and without myself that led to appreciating Spectrum more. “Quadrant 4” is basically a blues based combination of the jazz fusion synthesizer playing of Jan Hammer with Cobham and Tommy Bolin giving the song a shuffling hard rock theatrics about the general atmosphere of the song. “Searching For The Right Door” begins as a grandly percussive drum solo before going into a more funk oriented stomp for the title song. “Anxiety” similarly goes into the uptempo,rhythm guitar based uptempo funk/fusion of “Taurian Matador”.
“Stratus” is a tremendous near 10 minute number that takes the progressive drum solo into a rhythm guitar/electric piano led funk storm- before returning to a full band version of that huge intro sound yet again. “Le Sis” has another mellow electric piano based jazz/funk groove about it with a strong melody and slippery synth solo. “Red Baron” is still my favorite number here-with it’s slow stomping groove keeping itself funky in the James Brown tradition. This concludes the blend of jazz rock soloing and jazz funk grooves that pepper themselves across the album.
One of the things that I’ll bet that suits me more listening to this album today? It’s very much created with musicians in mind. Melody and song structure takes an almost total aside for instrumental ability. As well as extremely complex changes in rhythm. As casual listening? It might not work as well. It is an album you have to invest in,study it a bit. Each song encompasses so many contrasting themes? It’s not even something you can dance to. Yet if your in just the right mood? This is seriously addictive,not to mention extremely well played on,jazz/funk/fusion at it’s finest.
Physically speaking, More Songs About Buildings And Food was made by the same band that had thrown down Talking Heads: 77. Yet in terms of the music the flavor, style and attitude bare only the slightest resemblance. Of course, this is the beginning of the bands highly fruitful partnership with Brain Eno, a person even David Byrne (unique as he was) could never fully comprehend mentally. Along with Eno’s love of…well the best word would be painting abstract sound art the band themselves were fully indulging themselves in an all out rhythmic assault here.
The entire album is not percussive, but the whole concept is different; whereas the debut found a mildly quirky band really more or less exploring it’s “pop legs” this one is the birth of the Talking Heads classic sound in full form-top heavy, polyrhythmic,funky and as a result very spare underneath the clutter. The first six tunes on the album pretty much don’t let up-you have classics building a melody within the rhythm attack on “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”, “Warning Sign” and my favorite “Found A Job”.
There are plenty of just out and out jamming on the one happening on “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls”,”With Our Love” and “The Good Thing”. Rick James may not have coined the phrase “punk-funk” yet but the world of…well funky rhythm rock would never be the same after this stuff! Once you get into tunes such as “Artists Only”,”I’m Not In Love” and “Stay Hungry” your in for music finding the Heads trying to make sense,if they truly ever can of all the rhythms around them to come up with some jerky new-wavish tunes-like the rest of it they’re not structured “pop” per se but are very singable.
Technically speaking, “Take Me To The River” is the slower tune here..it creeps up on you like a soulful monster but never attacks,just keeps creeping away until the end and it’s a nice little change.”The Big Country”….well if I read it right I can sort of relate; when I moved where we live now I found myself thinking some of the things Byrne speaks about in the lyrics. And even now I often think “you couldn’t pay me to live here”. I LOVE the blunt, freaky humor without any of the cynicism.
In terms of writing and melodicism, More Songs About Buildings And Food isn’t quite as strong as the debut. And that really isn’t the point. The songs here are built from the rhythms & beats Eno and the Heads create here. And they add up to a lot when all’s said and done. But again the remaster/re-recording really brings this music a whole new life! This will not be everyone’s favorite Heads album but considering how well they started, the masterpieces to come and the historical place this holds in their career, this is just what the doctor ordered.
Stevie Wonder turned 18 in 1968. This was a year when months made a difference in daily life. And for music too. Wonder was still deeply involved in Motown’s assembly line musical approach. But his albums were starting to reflect more of his creative input and vision by the late 60’s. And on this album, he made major leaps forward musically. The title track is a strong example-a funky uptown soul stomp that was originally a Broadway show tune from Man Of La Mancha. Wonder kept the melodramatic vibe of the song intact on this title song too. And it was the radio breakout here obviously.
Yet its on the slower tempo, deeply grooving funk of “Shoo Be Doo Be Doo Da Day” and the powerfully composed faster funk of “You Met Your Match” and “I Wanna Make You Love Me”-as well as the slower,brooding “Don’t Know Why” where Wonder hauls forth his Clavinet electric piano. Herein begins his mapping out the basic pattern for what would be his 70’s breakthroughs-still within the fairly traditional Motown context. Some songs showcase that sound of the time with an emphasis on Wonder’s burgeoning songwriting.
“I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)” is a superb example on the uptempo end of that. “I’d Be A Fool Right Now” is actually one of my favorites here with its creamy orchestrations and strong song craft-easily could’ve been a Top 5 pop single in that regard. “Ain’t No Lovin'” and the breezy “Do I Love Her” have the same effect. Two covers-in the rather Dusty Springfield style take on “Sunny” and the big band arrangement of “God Bless The Child” round out this album album with it’s strongly funky closer “The House On The Hill”.
For Once In My Life musically spoke more to Stevie Wonder’s future than his past. Eight of its twelve songs were either written or co-written by him. And in many ways, it caps off what my friend Henrique and I call his “childhood career”. Funk had arrived during 1967 with James Brown and Sly Stone. And that was the basis of Wonder’s music here-especially with the Clavinet. Its also an important realizing that the funk genre itself was a process. And in terms of Motown and Stevie Wonder’s own artistry, For Once In My Life marked his ongoing journey into the funk genre of music.
Talking Heads spent a good deal of the 1980’s concentrating on different aspects of what was basically guitar oriented pop. It was done in a purposefully simplistic manner. By the time the decade approached, it was apparent Talking Heads would soon be no more. David Byrne’s musical fascination had always remained in African type polyrhythms and funk. And in basic terms that is the approach he returned to with this album. On the other hand it was a combination of changes in the pop music world in the late 80’s and the maturity of the band that made the big difference here.
Production was no longer considered the be all and end all of crafting a good pop record. This resulted in a surge of creative energy that lasted the final few years of the decade. And decamping to Paris to bring this sound to life, Talking Heads made much use of this. Boiling it down to basics this album is a loose follow up to Remain in Light. The difference is the sound isn’t so penetrating and aggressive. This album is defined by rather spare and very live musical productionalmost devoid of the electronic sounds of that 1980 release.
“Blind” is a perfect example. It’s a great opener and some of the best funk the band made. But it’s out of the horn based James Brown school- with some great bass/guitar interaction. On “Mr.Jones”, “Totally Nude” and “(Nothing But) Flowers” there is a strong taste of South African pop mixed with the Afro Brazilian sounds Paul Simon dealt with at this time. “Ruby Dear” is a potent reminder how deeply the Bo Diddly’s “hand jive” beat was from old African dances. “The Democratic Circus”, “Mommy Daddy You and I”, “Big Daddy” and “Bill” all add more depth to these musical textures and darker melodies.
“The Facts Of Life” and “Cool Water” are the only songs that use any electronic effects. And it’s uses sparingly and more texturally. Conceptually, Naked is lyrically rather delightful. It finds a livable and reasonable alternative to the faux middle American nightmare presented in that metaphorical way on Remain in Light. In this case,that alternative would seem to be the African based music and their very way of life.
It offered a type of wisdom and knowledge that could enhance, rather than detract from Western society. This is told here in different type stories which ask questions about everything from materialism to organized religion. And it’s all done up in that distinct ‘Talking Heads’ way. So if this is the way in which the David Byrne led lineup of the band would have to go out,there was nothing to disappoint.
Earth Wind & Fire are one of those groups who have a number of distinct musical periods. They’re all pretty hard to define by name and sometimes pass very quickly but,much as with James Brown and The Beatles before them they always had a way of getting people on board with them. One important thing this album did do was solidify the bands classic lineup more so than the highly transitional Columbia debut Last Days & Time had. At this phase of their career, EWF hadn’t fully developed the distinction they had on albums such as That’s the Way of the World.
Still the musical flourishes of then newcomers in Maurice and Verdine’s brother Fred-along with main drummer Ralph Johnson, Johnny Graham and Al McKay really give a lot of body to this music. This album was also the step off point from where Earth, Wind & Fire went from being a more raw dog soul/funk band into one that had a certain type of lushness in the production. The one important thing to note here is that Charles Stepney hadn’t yet become involved in the production of the band yet so we find Maurice and company having to find there own way around production slickness.
One thing to be noted about this album is that there is a very intense Latin-jazz flavor to most of the music on this album;one can here the influences of similarly flavored jazz-funk then being turned out by Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith during this period on songs such as “Evil”,”Clover”,featuring Phillip Bailey singing in his lowest voice possible and the en longed instrumental version of Sergio Mendes’s tune “Zanzibar. Not only do all of these songs feature a lot of spiritually pastoral lyrical metaphors. The cover art to this album reflects the mood of the music quite well in this particular regard.
But this is also music that likewise seems to grow in terms of chord progressions and musical inventiveness. This is one of the most thoroughly instrumentally based album EWF probably ever made and even Maurice White once pointed out how this music put the band into sync with the best instrumentalists of that era. Of course, heavily reverbed,breezy psychedelic soul type mid tempo ballads such as “Keep Your Head To The Sky”,an early EWF hit and “The World’s A Masquerade” add a good change of pace to the proceedings.
“Build Your Nest” is one of the best early examples of the type of slick yet heavy bottomed funk they band would make their trademark with shortly. The elements in the music that are still being worked out are the fact the band still have a quirkiness that’s actually very random. For example-at the end of the song “Clover” someone is making a very mournful sound which is rather pained. And it provides an eerie contrast to the beautiful grooves that predominate most of this album. Maybe it was a fluke or someone’s reminder of some of the darker elements of the early 70’s
Its that and other such aspects that sets keeps Head To The Sky apart from what’s to come. And perhaps that is why it’s one of only a few 70’s EWF titles currently out of print domestically-because of it’s sense of floating between being musical creative and commercially viable. Its also the one EWF album of the 70’s where horn charts are not a heavy priority in the production. No matter how you cut it, Head To The Sky remains one of this bands most potently creative albums and for an example of the artistry of Earth Wind & Fire this might be an excellent place to go even as a starting point.
Ashford & Simpson’s songs have somehow grown with me through my musical “soul education”. All the way from hearing their “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on public service LP’s (staring James Earl Jones entitled ‘Genius On The Black Side) that my father was given all the way up to finding them credited all over the place as songwriters on my many Motown collections. Within the last decade or so? I’ve been reviewing their own albums online as well. Yet somehow neglected this first CD of theirs I ever had. Something I got as a bonus selection when belonging to the old BMG Music Service.
After all this time and listening’s? Long overdue for me to go into the album here. “It Seems To Hang On” opens with a creamily beautiful example of disco friendly uptempo soul-full of liquid rhythm guitar and Valerie’s extremely sensuous vocals in particular. The title song is a richly orchestrated ballad filled with climactic harmony vocal choruses. “The Debt Is Settled” is a thick,stripped down piano/bass oriented groove that comes to life via it’s light percussion accents. “Ain’t It A Shame” is a breezy, mid tempo Brazilian style soul/pop number
“Get Up And Do Something” is, on the other hand, a thick funk number with a full scaling bass line, choppy keyboards and rhythmically jazzy refrains. “You Always Could” is a horn packed, soulful shuffle while “Flashback is a fine example of Latin flavored disco. The album ends with the instrumentally gospel infused mid tempo ballad “As Long As It Holds You”. What amazes me about this album is that this married duo could continually turn out high quality hit soul/funk/pop music on themselves as well as Chaka Khan and at the time preparing for a Diana Ross session.
It was likely the momentum of their oiled approach to their music over the years that kept Ashford & Simpson rolling right along- in terms of the level of their musical output. This emerges as another fine release in a strong of fine Ashford & Simpson albums in the mid/late 70’s. They offer up the best in their diverse stylistic arsenal. This album has the lush disco era uptempo material, blues structured funk and their slinky and cinematic balladry. And everything suited very well to the male/female duet format Nick and Val helped build-both together and for other artists as well.